Food Is Worth More Than It’s Cost

5 ways your food provides value.

In economics, there’s a concept of utility. This idea discusses how many utils or points of value someone gets from a certain item. To summarize the whole first week of Econ 101:

You might get 20 util points from a $2 package of HoHos when I only get 10. When they raise the price of HoHos, I might stop buying them because I don’t gain as many points of value from it as you do. But this price difference might not stop you from continuing to purchase the HoHos.

Spaghetti in a mug in the Boundary Waters.
This spaghetti was delicious after days into our BWCA trip!

While this measuring of pleasure is obviously subjective and vastly different between individuals, we tend to approximate this utility from a given product through money. Sadly, this measurement is based on what the “majority” is willing to pay. 

Sort of like peer pressure in reverse, forcing us to make decisions based on other purchasers in the market instead of our own needs and desires. Spending according to the utils of the majority.

Food purchases tend to suffer from this the most. As food becomes less differentiated by the companies that provide it, the market players become larger and larger, leaving the consumer to take what they can get. 

So the problem becomes losing control, the market determines the cost and worth. Next time you’re grocery shopping, take back control, and weigh the odds of what provides you with the most utils (pleasure) for a given dollar amount. 

1. Consider the Taste Value

Two steaks in a pan with the spices used to put a rub on behind it.
Grass fed steaks raised on our farm.

The first thing that drives our decision making, especially our impulse buys, is a desire for flavor. The fulfillment of taste is wide and varied, often subtle and subjective.

Flavors can also be categorical, think chocoholics. It can be nuanced, think wine-os. And it extends far beyond desserts and junk food. 

While one person might seek out and receive a rush of pleasure from a fine, French cuisine, another might internalize the same amount of value from a box of HoHos, yet at a much lower cost. 

While flavor is easy to think about, don’t let your food decisions begin and end at flavor, it might lead to an unhealthy addiction to frozen pizzas.

2. The Nutrition or Energy of Food Affects Value

Annie standing in front of the garden after collecting tons of tomatoes.
Coffee input is necessary on tomato canning day.

After flavor, most of us eat food because we need to. There is protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, and the minerals that our bodies need to survive. 

What you need depends on your lifestyle and health goals. The ultimate answer here is the subject of an entire scientific community with little consensus. If you are the type that found this blog, odds are you already think about this at least a little bit. The value you place on the nutrition in a product might differ from the next person. 

For example, Annie and I place a hefty value on cabbage for the way it makes us feel. We are often surprised at how cheap it is and how easy it grows in our garden. We would pay a lot more if we had to, but we’re glad we can make out like bandits on the price. To summarize, we place more nutritive value on cabbage than the market does.

3. Food Fosters Sustainability of Ecosystems and Regeneration

Morel mushrooms next to a plate of raw steak.
Morel mushrooms gathered on our property!

The Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to contain about a billion dollars worth of oil. Sold and distributed to American citizens, we would each earn about $3. Since the government we all elect has yet to open it up, one can conclude that on average most people would probably be willing to pay $3 to keep it a pristine wilderness. 

Economists call this existence value. Basically, something gives you utility just because it exists. Sometimes this value is present, even if you never plan to visit the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.

Food can provide value in this category as well. Everytime a grass farmer puts organic matter back into the pasture through her rotational grazing program, or a sustainable vegetable enterprise composts their cuttings into a garden… our world is made a better place. 

When wildlife inhabits the edge of a pastured pork forest, or a beehive pollinates a native prairie, an ecosystem is improved. 

If your food comes from a situation like this and you know about it, that feeling of well being is worth something. Don’t underestimate the power of your pocketbook to enact real change in the environment. You have more power over your local landscape than the Paris Accord ever will!

4. We Gain Value From Supporting the Local Economy

Home raised chicken and brussell sprouts on a plate.
Chicken we raised and brussel sprouts from a local farmer.

In this age of corporate excess and economies of scale, it’s easy to find examples of the little man getting moved out to make way for progress. 

While most often lamentable, this is not always bad. 

There are just certain things in our world I like to have provided by a large, well run organization… i.e. it just wouldn’t do to have a series of Mom and Pop nuclear reactors providing power on a neighborhood basis. 

But some things can, and should, be produced locally. Strong communities make strong people and there are few things more fulfilling than being part of a cycle of productivity that is happening nearby. 

This local production fosters resilience, which leads to happier, healthier people in the long run. 

Sadly, this local production often comes at the expense of the aforementioned economies of scale. That is, local people need more money for each thing they produce than an efficient factory. But this price difference doesn’t mean your local farmer is a bad business (wo)man, they most likely are still producing something you want, at the quality you want. They just can’t directly compete with market value.

5. Food Strengthens Community Values

Large plate of cooked chicken and an espresso cup.
Nick cuts into his delicious meal in Valladolid, Mexico.

At a personal level, a community of connection and support can transcend a lifetime of difficulty. Whatever your thoughts on human history, food has played a central role in bringing us all together. 

From primitive cave fires, to the Last Supper, to the Minnesota State Fair, we celebrate, reflect, and give thanks over food. 

But this connection need not begin and end at the meal. Local farmers often relish the idea of customers who visit their farm. Speaking for myself, there is no better compliment than a customer who brought their family together and served a meal with your food. 

This circular exchange of value enhances us all with wealth untold. Sometimes these connections cost little and yield much. Requiring only our time, thoughtfulness, and empathy. These fleeting moments spent together over quality food are the foundations upon which we build our lives.

Focus Your Personal Value on These Characteristics

Purple cabbage cut in half.
Look at the colors on this cabbage!

Ultimately, value is the amount of fulfillment we gain from something. Food comes to us as a bundle of organic chemistry and past action. 

Each part of that bundle has its own value. Try to answer for yourself just how much value you place on each of your food purchases, instead of relying on the dollar amount.

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This post was written by Nick Schmitz, October 2020.

Nick sits in canoe and Luna swims in the water

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